Why you should care
Because fun activities should feel, well, fun.
We all have that friend — hey, maybe you are that friend — who texts about Friday happy hour on Monday morning. Sure, making plans in advance might keep you from spiraling down a black hole of solo rosé and Scandal reruns. But new research suggests ditching the Google invites if you want to have fun.
Research out of the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University found that:
Spontaneous hangouts are way more fun than those scheduled in advance.
Which makes sense: We expect leisure activities to feel fluid, and imposing a rigid structure on them makes them feel like, well, work. The paper, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, stemmed from lead researcher Selin Malkoc’s travels to her native Turkey. “Now I have to go see my best friend,” she would think to herself. That made her wonder, “How can I say ‘my best friend’ and ‘have to’ in the same sentence?”
Together with co-author Gabriela Tonietto, Malkoc ran 13 studies to understand this phenomenon. In the first study, they gave 68 undergraduates a calendar filled with classes and extracurricular activities, and told them it would be their schedule that week. Half imagined making plans to grab frozen yogurt with a friend two days in advance, while the other half imagined making those plans upon bumping into their friend. Those who had scheduled to meet their friend rated it as feeling more like a chore than those who had done so spontaneously.
But why does this happen? To find out, the researchers assigned 201 adults to a “scheduled” group, which imagined they had planned an outing with friends for the next day, and an “impromptu” group, which imagined they had planned the same outing, to start in an hour. Everyone had to sign up for activities, but half of the members of each group received additional information about when the activities would take place. Impromptu group members who received this information rated the outing as feeling more like work than those who did not. This difference didn’t emerge in the scheduled group. In a separate survey, respondents rated the trip as less free-flowing when they received the additional information than when they didn’t, suggesting that imposing a structure on an impromptu event makes it feel less spontaneous and, consequently, more like work.
The findings highlight a drawback to today’s busyness-obsessed culture. Now, people plan even their weekends, “because they think it makes them feel happier,” says Juliano Laran of the University of Miami. “But as we can see, it doesn’t.”
Rough scheduling is OK, though. Undergraduates who imagined planning to meet a friend during a gap in their schedule felt just as excited in anticipation of the hangout as those who had imagined doing so spontaneously. The findings held up beyond just hypothetical situations, too. In one study, the researchers set up a booth on campus to provide free cookies and coffee to students during finals season. They handed out tickets to 148 students to pick up their goodies, asking half to choose a specific time to swing, and half to swing by during a two-hour window. Sure enough, those who only roughly scheduled their break reported enjoying it more than those who chose a specific time.
Malkoc notes that the study didn’t test activities spanning more than a few hours. Also, “some people are more schedulers than others,” says Philip Gable of the University of Alabama. Someone who gets a rush from color-coding her Google Calendar might enjoy happy hour even more if it’s planned in advance. Overall, though, Gable finds the methods “thorough and thoughtful.”
So what can the study tell us about how to plan our own social lives? Malkoc says now she tries to arrange to meet friends on a certain day, but not at a set time (say, Saturday after dinner), checking in a few hours beforehand (on Saturday afternoon). The same advice could apply to managers. Try to make happy hours feel spontaneous, rather than announcing them months in advance. Like playing the lottery or dating someone new, “uncertainty makes things more exciting,” Gable says.